Father Donald Senior, CP

Reading the stars

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

January 8, 2017: The Epiphany of the Lord
Is 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13; Mt 2:1-12

The feast of the Epiphany reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to give life to the whole world. This is a strong emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel — the Gospel we will hear throughout the Sundays of this liturgical year and the one that uniquely presents us with the story of the Magi. Paradoxically, Matthew’s Gospel is the most thoroughly Jewish of the Four Gospels but also the one that stretches the Christian mission to “all nations.”

Matthew begins his Gospel by emphasizing Jesus’ deep roots in the history of Israel. Through the genealogy that opens the Gospel he traces the roots of Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to David and into the moment of Jesus’ conception. In the turbulent events surrounding his conception and birth, Jesus seems to embody some of the key events of Israel’s own history: like Moses, he is threatened by a despot; like Joseph of old, the husband of Mary is both a “dreamer” and the one who protects Mary and her child; as happened to Jacob and his clan centuries before, the holy family take refuge in Egypt; and, as was Israel’s destiny, Jesus the Messiah is called out of Egypt to return to the Promised Land.

But into this very Jewish story Matthew inserts the account of the coming of the Magi. They are Gentiles “from the east” who have detected the momentous birth of Jesus, the “newborn king of the Jews” by reading the alignment of the stars. But they must come to Israel and learn from the Scriptures the precise location of this new king. Once they learn that it is in Bethlehem they will find the answer to their quest, they go and offer homage. Meanwhile, Herod and his court plot the death of child who might be a rival king — thereby Matthew subtly anticipates the passion of Jesus. The Jewish Christians who first heard Matthew’s account would understand the message: Jewish tradition affirmed that God had created the universe and all the beauty of creation was his gift. Therefore, if one contemplated the beauty of the created world, one would ultimately discover the Creator. Yet, as Paul the Apostle would affirm at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans, sin clouded human vision and people failed to find God in the beauty and order of nature. But in Matthew’s account these wise men from the East do find the Divine Presence in Jesus and bring him their precious gifts as a sign of their worship of this marvelous child.

For most of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus confines his mission to his beloved Israel, but in the final scene, the Risen Christ will open the horizon of his disciples’ mission to “all nations” (28:16-20). The visit of these Gentiles from East signals this ultimate outcome — as does Matthew’s story of the Gentile centurion in Capernaum, who in asking Jesus to heal his servant exhibits such faith and reverence for Jesus (8:5-13), and the account of the Canaanite woman who will not take “no” for an answer and whose faith presses Jesus to heal her desperately ill daughter (15:21-28).

There is an important lesson here for all of us. It makes sense that we turn our attention first to our family and community and parish — to people and customs that are proximate and familiar to us. But the glory — and challenge — of the message of Jesus is that God’s embrace of the world knows no bounds, and the good news of Jesus impels us to extend our love and respect and care beyond our own familiar boundaries to people worldwide, particularly those in need. This the message of Epiphany. In a world where many people are reinforcing boundaries and setting up walls, where the stranger or refugee is not welcome, the Christian vision challenges us to move in a different direction. We believe, as the Letter to the Ephesians declares in our second reading for this feast, the peoples of the world “are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”


  • scripture